We often think of spaces as civic furniture—aesthetic break points in the urban landscape, functional places for picnics and BBQs, and quality-of-life amenities that are described in real estate brochures as nice (as in “good schools, nice parks”). But deep down, we know that they are much more than nice. As a society, we are remembering the fundamental power of place to meet human and community needs, and we are beginning to put this knowledge into action once again.

I am a true believer in the power of place as a tool for social impact. I also believe that land advocates and managers are critical leaders in the movement to harness land’s power for impact. We live in an increasingly urbanized and interconnected world. Time, place, and culture impact how we move in the world, where we go, and what we do. Increasingly, our communities are physically and culturally disconnected from land and nature, and from the benefits that come from connecting with both. 

In America today, nearly 80 percent of people live in cities. More than 2 million acres of land are consumed by sprawling development (that’s equivalent to 3,789 football fields every day). Concurrent with this trend, we are experiencing significant increases in obesity and chronic disease, and decreases in air and water quality, which extract draconian human and economic costs.

It is at this crossroads that a visionary and vital “spaces and places” movement can tip the scales, deliver impact, and move from nice to necessary. By understanding and meeting human and community needs, and by effectively communicating relevance and benefits, we can build an effective power of place movement.

Understanding and Meeting Community Needs

Parents, community leaders, public health officials, and environmentalists are concerned about access to healthy food. For 10,000 years our food system was 100 percent organic and nearly 100 percent local. In the last 50 years, it has become an international commodity, often processed beyond recognition and sold far from where it is produced. But the power of place movement is starting to make a difference. In cities across the US—Houston to Brooklyn, Portland to Detroit—communities are turning vacant lots, surplus public land, and school grounds into community gardens. They are creating access to affordable and healthy food while building a connection between people, their food, and the land. But where is the leadership to take this from a set of examples to the way we do things? Is this a role that experts running public gardens, parks, land trusts, and other organizations should take on?

In many cities, access to clean water and air is an increasing concern. Green space, urban foliage, biofiltration, and natural treatment of runoff are all underutilized and cost-effective approaches to treating air and water, and help foster an understanding of how we must change our patterns of use. Can the design, operation, and programming of spaces incorporate more carbon-hungry trees and ways to capture water for reuse? And will that inspire shifts in our expectations, choices, and behaviors related to air and water, which directly impact their quality and conservation?

In just a few generations, we have moved from active to more sedentary lifestyles. Whether it’s our one-stop shopping at superstores rather than walking between shops, or the difference between kids “going out to play” and “having screen time,” the transformation has been dramatic. This must change, and parks, trails, gardens, and open spaces are the key. We need safe and inviting transit corridors to make our daily trips more convenient and fun—corridors we can navigate by foot and bike rather than by internal combustion engine. We need open, green spaces where kids can play and people of all ages can move. Who will provide leadership to ensure that place and space are at the table as part of our public health discourse?

Of course the list of needs that these spaces would serve could go on and on. They would build a stronger sense of community, increase biodiversity—you get the point. Place and connection to land are fundamental to meeting core human and community needs.

Communicating Relevance and Benefits

The greatest barriers to advancing this power of place movement often come down to our own language and frames. Advocates and organizations are often too focused on telling their own story rather than listening to and understanding communities, engaging them, and creating a platform to express their stories. To succeed, we need to focus on several important communication watchwords:

Stakeholders, not audiences: if we treat people as our “audience,” we present to them, offer transactional opportunities, and establish relationships that are often one-way streets. If we see and approach people as stakeholders who have a vested interest in our mission and ownership of the outcomes, we garner investment and commitment, as well as feedback that helps identify solutions.

Engagement, not awareness: Too often our desire in the place-based movement is to build awareness along the lines of, “If only people better understood conservation, the need for parks, etc., they would change their behavior and better support our work.” But what we need is engagement—stakeholders need the agency to express their perspective and vision, to impact decision-making, and to help design the choices and priority setting that managing natural resources and places require.

Listen and lead with alignment to values: By really listening to what people and communities need, and by understanding the values they hold related to open and natural places, we are able to authentically articulate the relevance of place. To capture attention, demonstrate import, and drive action by others, we must meet them where they are and in ways that connect to their priorities and motivators.

Emotion trumps data: In the conservation and place-based arena, we are true believers in the power of science and the ethos of getting the full story before we can arrive at rational decisions. Unfortunately, that is not how most people make decisions. Most of us decide what we are going to do based upon emotion, and then rationalize the choice with data. Luckily, we can connect emotionally about the power of place and provide easy access to the data that backs up our case. Advocates for place have an incredible asset: people already have an emotional connection to land and nature.

Ultimately, we need to consider shifting our focus from building institutions to building a movement that shatters silos. Is our sphere the garden? The park? The nature preserve? Are we really conservationists, preservationists, foresters, land managers, and horticulturalists? Perhaps, but we are also public health champions, community visionaries, and advocates for healthy, sustainable, and meaningful lives and communities. By focusing on meeting broader needs with the power of place, we accomplish our conservation missions, establish our work as an absolute necessity, and build an effective movement.